A University of Oregon psychologist has found that a country's belief in heaven and hell is related to its crime rates, and that a belief in a punitive God equals less crime while a belief in a forgiving savior means more crime.
"It seems like there is a case to be made for the causal direction that religious punishment does actually lower unethical behavior, where as forgiveness does seem to license people," Azim F. Shariff, professor of psychology and director of the Culture and Morality Lab at the University of Oregon, told KEZI 9 News.
The study, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, took a sample survey from 143,197 people in 67 countries over a span of 26 years.
The results of the study concluded that in countries where people believe in hell and a punitive God, crime rates are lower. In countries where people believe in heaven and a forgiving savior, crime rates are higher.
"The key finding is that, controlling for each other, a nation's rate of belief in hell predicts lower crime rates, but the nation's rate of belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates, and these are strong effects," Shariff told news channel KVAL-TV.
"I think it's an important clue about the differential effects of supernatural punishment and supernatural benevolence. The finding is consistent with controlled research we've done in the lab, but here shows a powerful 'real world' effect on something that really affects people – crime," he added.
Shariff told the news station that the key to understanding the report's results was to pull a part the different constructs of organized religion, rather than viewing it as a whole.
"Once you split religion into different constructs, you begin to see different relationships. In this study, we found two differences that go in opposite directions. If you look at overall religious belief, these separate directions are washed out and you don't see anything. There's no hint of a relationship," he said.
In a companion study published last year in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Shariff wrote that undergraduate students at the University of Oregon were more likely to cheat on a test if they believed in a forgiving God.
"This fits into a bigger cultural issue about how religions initially evolved and what purposes they served," Shariff said in a video interview in April 2011.
The findings of the study, according to Shariff, show that positive supernatural belief systems are a reliable means by which to evoke ethical behavior from people.
Shariff went on the tell KVAL that caution must be used in interpreting these findings, as further research would need to be done to solidify his hypothesis.
The psychologist's study was obtained from World Values and European Values surveys, dispersed in multiple countries at various periods between 1981 and 2007.
The study also took into account countries' predominant religions, and studied the correlative effects between these two factors next to rates of crime obtained from United Nations records, including rates for kidnapping, homicide, auto theft, robbery, rape, assault, theft, drug-related crimes, burglary and human trafficking.